The Significance of Disability in Public Health

Because the term disability can be used in different contexts by health professionals, disability advocates, or others there is not one single definition of the term “disability.” The term disability is defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) as “physical or mental impairment that substantially limits one or more major life activities, a person who has a history or record of such an impairment, or a person who is perceived by others as having such an impairment.”The International Classification of Functioning, Disability and Health (ICF) describes disability as “an umbrella term for impairments, activity limitations and participation restrictions.”3 Disabilities can be physical, communicative, cognitive, or mental.

People with disabilities comprise a significant portion of the communities that public health professionals serve.  People with disabilities are our coworkers, neighbors, family members, friends, and community members.  Data show that over 56.7 million Americans have a disability, making up about 19% of the American population.4 Anyone can acquire or experience a disabling condition in their lifetime. The risk of acquiring a disability can increase as people age, as does the possibility of severe disability and the need for assistance.

sig chart

Source: Survey of Income and Program Participation, U.S. Census Bureau, June–September 2005 and May–August 2010.

Learn more